Newsline Special Report: Disaster Response

October 24, 2007

“Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage…” (Psalm 27:14a).

1) Children’s Disaster Services gears up for California fire response.
2) Brethren Disaster Ministries assesses needs following Nappanee tornado.
3) Brethren volunteer shares life, work, and more on Gulf Coast.

4) Reflection: A call for prayer for southern California.

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1) Children’s Disaster Services gears up for California fire response.

Fueled by dry brush and the relentless Santa Ana winds, as many as 22 wildfires have been raging for days in seven southern California counties, some of which are affecting urban areas. Close to 900,000 people have been evacuated, and the American Red Cross (ARC) has opened innumerable shelters.

A Rapid Response Team of volunteers from Children’s Disaster Services–a ministry of the Church of the Brethren General Board–are already at work in one of the shelters housing evacuees. The team of a handful of volunteers is coordinated by Sharon Gilbert, and is working in cooperation with local disaster relief agencies and authorities, said Roy Winter, director of Brethren Disaster Ministries.

Children’s Disaster Services is preparing to open up child care centers in ARC shelters as early as Thursday morning. Shelter sites may be anywhere from Ventura County south to the Mexican border.

The Rapid Response Team model enables volunteers to respond quickly to local disasters. Representatives are in the field actively assessing the situation and deciding where responses are most needed, and how volunteers can safely travel and stay out of harm’s way. “This rapid response team is what we hope to replicate throughout the country,” Winter said. “It creates a first line of volunteers who are ready to respond. Once the response grows, we can send in additional volunteers from other states.”

The situation in southern California “is more than we will be able to staff (with California volunteers) so the plan is to extend our reach as much as possible,” said Judy Bezon, associate director of Children’s Disaster Services. “We will staff each center with less than a full team of certified child care workers. They would then work with and supervise local volunteers after presenting a brief orientation on the essential elements of our program.”

Bezon has asked all Children’s Disaster Services regional coordinators to determine which of their volunteers would be most appropriate for this response.

San Diego Church of the Brethren is perhaps the closest Brethren congregation to the fires. It is located about three miles from the inner city of San Diego and about 25 miles away from the nearest line of fires north or south, said pastor Sara Haldeman-Scarr, contacted by phone today. The church has mostly been affected by smoke, she said. Several families in the church have been on evacuation alert, with two or three “packed and awaiting evacuation orders,” she said.

Some members of San Diego Church of the Brethren are volunteering at Qualcomm Stadium, Haldeman-Scarr said. The stadium is serving as a shelter for more than 12,000 people. Church members are registered nurses and licensed practitioners, and are helping to offer medical services to evacuees.

The church is assessing how best to be helpful to the community, the pastor said, as well as doing a lot of communication with its 80-some members by telephone. Today, she said, she and her assistant “might just be calling every member of the congregation, and just touch base.”

Pacific Southwest District disaster coordinator Everett Deidiker, who was contacted by telephone today, anticipates that Brethren from the district will help with clean up following the fires. “It is such chaos right now that we can’t do anything” at the moment, he said. “Often the organized work follows. The clean up part of it is probably where we would start.”

For more about Children’s Disaster Services, go to

–Jane Yount, coordinator of Brethren Disaster Ministries, contributed sections of this report.

2) Brethren Disaster Ministries assesses needs following Nappanee tornado.

Staff of Brethren Disaster Ministries and Children’s Disaster Services visited Nappanee, Ind., this weekend to assess damage following a tornado that hit the community on Oct. 18. Judy Bezon, associate director of Children’s Disaster Services, and Zach Wolgemuth, associate director of Brethren Disaster Ministries, toured the community, met with the mayor, and contacted local and district Church of the Brethren leaders. Nappanee is a center for the Brethren, Mennonite, and Amish populations in the midwest.

Six or seven Brethren families lost their homes in the Category 3 tornado, Wolgemuth said. Most of the families who lost homes are from Nappanee Church of the Brethren and from Union Center Church of the Brethren, also located in Nappanee. Both churches are in Northern Indiana District.

In a report to the General Board meeting on Oct. 22, the staff said that a grant is being made from the Church of the Brethren’s Emergency Disaster Fund to support the work of Northern Indiana District in response to the storm. The grant will give an initial $5,000 to the effort.

The storm damaged some 200 to 250 homes and businesses, and destroyed between 100 to 150 homes, Wolgemuth reported. A two-mile swath in the town was destroyed, and the tornado was on the ground for a total of 20 miles. Just a few people suffered minor injuries, however, and there were no deaths.

Wolgemuth noted the massive community response to local officials’ calls for help with clean up. The officials announced on Saturday that Sunday, Oct. 21, would be a community clean up day. Some 5,000 people from the area responded to the announcement, and traffic to the high school–a meeting point for volunteers–was backed up for six miles, Wolgemuth said.

Wolgemuth and Bezon met with Nappanee mayor Larry Thompson, who already had been in contact with a Church of the Brethren member who is a trained Children’s Disaster Services volunteer. The mayor expressed respect for Brethren disaster work, Wolgemuth said, and asked many questions about how the Brethren could help the community.

Information from Nappanee about its tornado recovery efforts and how to help that local effort is available at For more information about Brethren Disaster Ministries, go to

3) Brethren volunteer shares life, work, and more on Gulf Coast.

For Santos Morales, going to the Gulf Coast for Hurricane Katrina recovery was another important stop on his journey out of a rough life. The 57-year-old native of East Los Angeles said he could understand the hardships faced by Gulf Coast residents.

“I know what’s it like to be homeless and penniless,” said Morales, who spent 35 years involved with gangs and criminal activity that landed in him in prison four times. Having been in tough spots many times himself, he knew he had to help.

Some 10 years since turning his life around, Morales spent three weeks of volunteer work in Chalmette, La., rehabbing homes with Church of the Brethren disaster volunteer teams. The experience was moving, he said, adding that the trip was about more than the physical. “Just seeing all that devastation–and it wasn’t just the buildings, it was the humans,” he said. “There was such a need there for just a smile.”

Despite being a skilled roofer and dry-waller, Morales said his willingness to give smiles and to talk with families was his most valuable work while in Chalmette. That communication created new friendships and allowed residents to share how they were doing with the recovery, he said.

“Buildings can be rebuilt and replaced, but the people will take longer,” he said. “The people need to be rebuilt.”

For someone who looks like he does–“I have a lot of tattoos, so people get nervous when they first see me”–Morales said it was nice to also help break down stereotypes and make friends with people who never would have met a former gang member from the streets of Los Angeles. His sense of humor helped smooth the communication, he said.

Everyone working together is what matters most, he added. “We all come from different walks of life,” Morales said. “What’s important is where we’re headed.”

Morales, who lives in New Windsor, Md., and volunteers regularly at the Brethren Service Center there, said he would recommend a Gulf Coast hurricane recovery trip to everyone. Whether volunteers go for a day or a week or longer, he said it was important to show affected residents how much people care. He said he expected to return early next year.

“I’ve done dirty and tough work before, but I’ve never done it for a good cause,” he said. “But I enjoyed this job and the people.”

Morales said he was happy to have shared his time and talents with others. He considers himself fortunate to be where he is now and hopes to continue moving his life in the right direction. “I’m thankful,” he said. “I don’t have much. Whatever I have and experience I share with others. I know what it can do for others because it’s been done for me.”

–By Heather Moyer for Disaster News Network. Reproduced with permission from Disaster News Network,, (c) 2007 Village Life Company.

4) Reflection: A call for prayer for southern California.

This evening I heard the words “this will not be another Katrina.” These are words that I heard over the radio. A quote from the President. I wonder what that means…and wait…and we all wait.

When I stepped outside the office today the air was dry, strange, thick, heavy, a mix of smoke and ash. Yes there was ash on my car. They say it is not healthy to breathe this air. As I drove home the setting sun was a strange bloody red. The sky a strange mix of red and grey. I saw smoke in every direction. I just have to drive about 45 minutes north or an hour east, west, or south, and I am bound to run into these wild fires. Some of them are no longer wild fires, they are firestorms. Dangerous infernos.

The images that I see on television are mesmerizing and also saddening at times. A home that takes more than six months to build is reduced to ash in less than five minutes. This is not the first time that I have seen this, but it continues to amaze me. This is life in southern California during fire season.

People continue to lose their homes. Some of the homes are miraculously spared. Some people are sad, some mad, and some without any emotions yet. This is indeed the price of living in southern California.

In the midst of this all I invite you to be in an attitude of prayer and awareness.

Pray for all the people out here who have lost everything they had.
Pray for those who have been evacuated from their homes and have no idea of when they get to return home.
Pray for all helping fight fires over land and through air.
Pray for those who feel slighted that the firefighters did not get to them at all to save their homes.
Pray that help arrives for all those in need.
Pray that every one regardless of their status, the color of their skin, the level of their education, receive help.
Pray that the weather changes soon, that the winds (the Santa Anas) subside and there is some relief.
Lord have mercy.

–Valentina Satvedi is an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren and co-director of Mennonite Central Committee’s Anti-Racism Program. She lives in Glendale, Calif.

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Newsline is produced by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, director of news services for the Church of the Brethren General Board, or 800-323-8039 ext. 260. Jane Yount and Roy Winter contributed to this report. Newsline appears every other Wednesday, with the next regularly scheduled Newsline set for Oct. 24. Other special issues may be sent as needed. Newsline stories may be reprinted if Newsline is cited as the source. For more Church of the Brethren news and features, subscribe to “Messenger” magazine, call 800-323-8039 ext. 247.

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